City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi) (4K UHD)

Director: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci & Dardano Sacchetti
Stars: Christopher George (Peter Bell), Catriona MacColl (Mary Woodhouse), Carlo De Mejo (Gerry), Antonella Interlenghi (Emily Robbins), Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Bob), Daniela Doria (Rosie Kelvin), Fabrizio Jovine (Father William Thomas), Luca Venantin (John-John Robbins), Michele Soavi (Tommy Fisher), Venantino Venantini (Mr. Ross)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1980
Country: Italy
City of the Living Dead 4K UHD
City of the Living Dead

The first of Lucio Fulci’s loose “Gates of Hell” trilogy, City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, aka The Gates of Hell) is vintage Fulci, which means that it is an extremely gory, narratively nonsensical mishmash of effective Gothic atmosphere and an amateurish desire to be as gross as possible. For every scene that really works, there are two or three that are ham-handed, absurd, or tiresomely grotesque.

Fulci, who began his career directing films in virtually every genre imaginable before settling into the horror genre in the late 1970s, never met a gross-out he couldn’t fetishize, and his films are often the cinematic equivalent of rubbing mud, blood, and worms in the audience’s face (which, not incidentally, actually happens to a character in City of the Living Dead). Backs of skulls are ripped off, a character’s head is drilled clean through, and, in the film’s most instantly notorious sequence, a woman vomits up what appears to be the entirety of her internal organs. That particular scene, as it goes on and on and on, becomes a kind of microcosm of Fulci’s simultaneous strength and weakness as a filmmaker: He is very good at orchestrating gross-out moments of epic proportions, but he usually takes them so far that they become comical, rather than horrifying. His delight in drawing out the lead-up to the gross-out forces him into scenes of protracted absurdity, such as the aforementioned drill-through-the-head, the suspense of which he fumbles badly by having the victim lie almost completely still while the drill gets closer and closer, making virtually no effort to get away from the person holding him down because, well, you know—he might get away and then there would be no drill through the head.

Co-written by Fulci and his frequent collaborator Dardano Sacchetti, City of the Living Dead, despite its title, actually attempts to move on from Fulci’s previous film, Zombie (1979; aka, Zombi 2), which was a transparent attempt to cash in on George A. Romero’s infinitely superior Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), the latter of which was released in Italy as Zombi (hence Fulci’s film having the otherwise head-scratching title Zombi 2). Rather than simply repeating what had already worked, Fulci and Sacchetti (who also co-wrote Zombie) attempted to steer the film into a more overtly supernatural direction, drawing heavily (although not always very well) on the expansive horrors created by H.P. Lovecraft, which explains why the film is set largely in the fictional New England town of Dunwich. The best moments in City of the Living Dead are the ones in which Fulci creates an unsettling atmosphere of impending dread, which he does quite well with little more than mist, street lights, and camera angles.

The story, as much as there is one, begins with a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself from a tree in a church graveyard in Dunwich, which somehow opens one the gates of hell (there are apparently numerous said gates, as they also appear in Fulci’s The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery). The opening of the gate is witnessed during a séance in New York by medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl), who then teams up with gruff journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George) to try to find and close it. At the same time, strange happenings cause Gerry (Carlo De Mejo), an (overly) level-headed psychiatrist and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren) to also travel to Dunwich to investigate what is happening. There are some other characters, as well, including a mentally deficient pedophile named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Gerry’s much-younger girlfriend Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), and Emily’s adolescent brother John-John (Luca Venantin), all of whom have various encounters with the ghost of the hanged priest and the living dead who have been unleashed by his suicide. Unlike Romero’s zombies, though, these have the ability to appear and disappear at will, although they are still driven by the same desire to tear people apart, which said people allow them to do by mostly standing there.

As with Fulci’s other gory horror films, City of the Living Dead is alternately tiresome and unintentionally comical, especially for American viewers who will immediately notice that the English-language dialogue was clearly penned by a non-native speaker (you can play a drinking game for every time a character utters an outdated saying like “What the dickens?”). Fulci has a great sense of how to establish atmosphere, but then he blows it time and again by engaging in pointless stylistic overkill, such as his decision to shoot many dialogue scenes with extreme close-ups of the characters’ eyes (it is as if he is trying to channel Sergio Leone, but with no real understanding of the idea of how the face as landscape actually works). There are scenes that function well enough, but then there are ones like the scene in which Sandra calls Gerry over to her house because she found a dead body in her kitchen that promptly disappears while a lot of strange noises echo throughout the house, and he calmly declares that they are going to stay there and find out what is going on. Even by irrational horror-movie-character standards, this defies credulity. Yet, Fulci needs his characters to act like wooden props because that is what makes them so easily victimized, and in the end he cares a lot more about close-ups of squishing brains, flying maggots, and bleeding eyes than he does character, story, or logic.

City of the Living Dead 4K UHD + Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural
  • Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan
  • Audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson
  • Audio commentary by actress Catriona MacColl, moderated by Jay Slater
  • Audio commentary by actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, moderated by Calum Waddell
  • “The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi” featurette
  • “Carlo of the Living Dead” archival interview with actor Carlo De Mejo
  • “Zombie Kings” 2017 interview with Massimo Antonello Geleng
  • “Requiem for Bob” 2017 interview with Giovanni Lombardo Radice
  • On Stage 2017 Q&A with Venantino Venantini & Ruggero Deodato
  • 2010 Catriona MacColl Q&A from The Glasgow Theater
  • “Music for a Flesh Feast” 2012 Fabio Frizzi Q&A
  • Catriona MacColl archival video intro
  • “A Trip Through Bonaventure Cemetery 2022” featurette
  • Archival interviews with cast and crew from Paura, Lucio Fulci Remembered Vol. 1
  • Trailers
  • Image Gallery
  • DistributorCauldron Films
    Release DateAugust 25, 2023

    First, to ensure that there is no confusion, the 4K UHD disc on this release of City of the Living Dead is the same one that was included in Cauldron Films’ earlier releases: a Limited Edition 4-disc set that included a soundtrack CD and a 3-disc Exclusive Slipcase version. This release includes the three discs from the second release: a 4K UHD of the film, a Blu-ray of the film, and a Blu-ray with all the supplements (minus the four audio commentaries, which are included on both the 4K and the Blu-ray discs). Cauldron describes this release as an “updated 4K restoration, with a brand new Dolby Vision color grade,” although no other details have been made available regarding the transfer and restoration. Nevertheless, the disc looks and sounds great, with good color, detail, and contrast. There has long been confusion regarding how the film was shot, but most sources assert that it was shot on 2-perf Techniscope that was then optically blown up for anamorphic 2.39:1 presentation release prints (this was true of both of Fulci’s subsequent films, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, which were also shot by Sergio Salvati). But, for whatever reason, City of the Living Dead was printed flat and cropped to 1.85:1. There is definitely some heavy grain throughout, as there should be for a film of its era and budget, and there are some inconsistencies that are clearly endemic to the source materials. All in all, this is a great presentation. The same goes for the original two-channel monaural soundtrack, which is available in both English and Italian dubs (the English works better, in my opinion, since the film is ostensibly set in the U.S and the vast majority of the actors were performing in English). Composer Fabio Frizzi’s pulsating electronic score has some nice depth, and all the grisly-squishy sound effects are appropriately over the top.

    As for the supplements … there are a lot. The vast majority of them have been ported over from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases, but it is always nice to have them in one place. These include three audio commentaries—one by film historian Troy Howarth and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, one by actress Catriona MacColl that is moderated by Jay Slater, and one by actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice that is moderated by Calum Waddell. There are also numerous featurettes and interviews with members of the cast and crew: “The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi (27 min.); “Carlo of the Living Dead,” an archival interview with actor Carlo De Mejo (18 min.); “Zombie Kings,” a 2017 interview with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (46 min.); and “Requiem for Bob,” a 2017 interview with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (28 min.). Additional interviews with 13 members of the cast and crew reminiscing about their work with Lucio Fulci can be found in the 43 minutes of excerpts from the documentary Paura, Lucio Fulci Remembered Vol. 1. We also get video from three Q&A sessions: a 2017 on-stage Q&A with actor Venantino Venantini and Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato (46 min.); a 2010 Q&A with Catriona MacColl from the Glasgow Film Theater following a screening of The Beyond (20 min.); and 2012 Q&A with composer Fabio Frizzi also at the Glasgow Film Theater (29 min.). Also included is a 5-minute archival video intro by MacColl, several trailers, and an extensive image gallery of production stills, lobby cards, and poster art. There are a few new additions here, too: a brand-new audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan, associate editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast, and “A Trip Through Bonaventure Cemetery 2022,” which is 5 minutes of drone footage through the Savannah, Georgia, cemetery where key scenes from the film were shot (it made me wish, though, that they had done a full-out locations-as-they-are-now featurette).

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Cauldron Films

    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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